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100, travel, etc.

A day or so ago I finished the 100th book of the year (Darin Strauss’s Half a Life). There are 62 days left in 2010, so my plan to give every book an entry, however minor, is a colossal failure. As always, the recognition of such a deep and unfixable failure has me limbered up and productive. For the past two weeks, I’ve been sitting down for 10 or 15 minutes a day and typing at a great speed about a book. This doesn’t lead to much deep thought, and a couple of times barely any thought at all about the actual book at hand, but it does feel good. So I’m going to start posting those, ragged and wandering as they are, and we’ll see how much I can pare down the unwritten-about list before I feel obligated to do an annual wrap-up.

I’m traveling later this week, and while I haven’t even started to think about which clothes to pack, I’ve already devoted at least two hours of thought to which books to bring. There are two long flights, the associated airport time (extended edition, due to the recent Yemen events), and much public transportation time planned. My phone is not smart. My phone barely manages texting. There is a lot riding on my book choice here.

The finalists:
The Voyage of the Narwal, by Andrea Barrett. Paperback, long, liked previous works by Barrett. I haven’t read any novels by her yet, and I worry about the historical fiction part, but this could be a great choice: nothing soothes frustrating travel delays and irritations like comparatively worse (while still engrossing) accounts. I might be stuck sitting on the floor of an airport with people screaming into their phones for six hours, but at least I’m not in the Arctic, losing my toes to the cold.
The Half-Life of Happiness by John Casey. Paperback, long, loved his shockingly unknown novel Spartina (shocking because it won the National Book Award and I’ve never talked to another person who has read it). I know almost nothing about this book. It takes place in Virginia, where I will be staying, and that might be nice, the match of my physical and literary space. Then again, the mismatches are also memorable: Holland is the Russia of Anna Karenina for me (days spent with an unexpectedly old friend-of-the-family couple who wouldn’t let me out of their sight and fed me herring on buttered rye toasts with black currant juice in between my hours-long dives into Tolstoy while on their stiff brocaded furniture), Minneapolis for a long iced-over weekend is all Magic Mountain (hundreds of pages of Hans), and an epic Amtrak journey from CA to MI, stop-and-go days across the frozen plains, is reading and then rereading Jane Austen (while listening to early Portishead and eating only satsumas and tamari almonds).
The Lecturer’s Tale by James Hynes. Paperback, long, thoroughly enjoy academic satire. I started this a few weeks ago after my Lionel Shriver-sparked health insurance freakout. Something funny, I thought. There’s health insurance panic in the first handful of pages. Back on the shelf. I’m much recovered now, for the moment, and this is the clear winner in the potential fun category. Maybe I’ll take two.
Mortals by Norman Rush. Paperback, massive, his Mating is one of my top-ten books. Given that, I wonder, as I skim the shelves for my next book, why I’ve had this for years now and haven’t read it. The major strike against Mortals is that I did once take it with me out of town (not far out of town, but Away From Bookshelves); in 70 pages, I was not swept up, was still working hard to be in the story. Mating may have been like that as well—my place memories of it are ten-page runs on the light rail, twenty over lunch. Short enough pieces, read daily, so that I stayed with the story but had time to look up the unfamiliar words (bolus! echt!) and give some thought to the problems of socialism. Rush might need more of my brain than will be available, and I might need something more friendly to being read for hours on end.

the etc:
This pains me: I’m giving up on Petterson’s new novel, I Curse the River of Time. I’m interested in the story and the characters and the setting and the conflict, but it’s time to admit, at over 100 pages in, that the frequent comma splices and run-on sentences have done this worn-out proofreader in. I don’t know anything about Norwegian punctuation; I’m assuming that they deal with compound sentences in a different way than English does. This is a translation issue, one I didn’t have with Out Stealing Horses (a glance back to that book shows that the splice issue is mostly dealt with by just adding coordinating conjunctions, which I approve of). I feel fussy and unfair, but it’s like nails on a chalkboard, every page. I’m fine with sentences like these used for occasional emphasis: here it’s too much. Here are a few sample sentences—if reading ones like these each page doesn’t irk you right out of the story, I’d still suggest the book. Petterson is a hell of a writer.

But the reason I was there that day was not just the fact that I was broke, not at all, being broke was a way of life, I hardly noticed it any more.

I often went to the Munch Museum on Sundays to stand before the colourful, soft yet sinister paintings I loved so much, and I really didn’t want to disappoint anyone, that’s the way I have always been.

But I no longer stopped on the stairs or outside the windows looking in, I was beyond that, I no longer wished to be inside, I held my life in my own hands.

Like I said, fussy, but there are so many other books to read where I’m not thinking about punctuation constantly.

almost everything I need

This weekend is the Pegasus/Pendragon Books annual warehouse sale (also know as the weekend when I refill the empty places I’ve worked so hard to create on my bookshelves), and I dragged myself out of bed early enough to be there at the opening. I set myself a budget this year, $50, no exceptions, and here’s how I did, with brief notes:

short story collections
The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin (feel like I should’ve read this already)
Tell Me by Mary Robison (haven’t read much of her but have liked what I did read)
At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom by Amy Hempel (read most of these in her collected stories, but I would like to reread and own nothing of hers)
A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean (why not, have heard good things)
Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti (lovely looking book, familiar name)
Passion and Affect by Laurie Colwin (great title, have only read a story or two by her before)

autobiography
My Father and Myself by J.R. Ackerley (kismet! first heard about this book half an hour before leaving for the sale on the Paris Review blog)

novels
The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer (loved this last year, have been looking for a copy since)
The Partnership by Barry Unsworth (never read anything by him, but enticing blurb and random page read)
Farmer by Jim Harrison (since the dream I’ve repeatedly mentioned, I pick him up whenever I run across him. the first book I found at the sale)
The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond (hey, a Twitter-based pick-up!)
Citizen Vince by Jess Walter (enjoyed his Financial Lives of the Poets)
The Everlasting Story of Nory by Nicholson Baker (love me some Nicholson Baker, haven’t read this one)
The Zero by Jess Walter (same at Citizen Vince)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (I admit to an initial snob recoil to the book, but I haven’t talked to anyone who disliked it and I am, after all, a dog geek)
My Happy Life by Lydia Millet (perfect! I’m reading her How the Dead Dream right now, and this book isn’t in the library system)
C by Tom McCarthy (the score of the day, by far: fifty cents)

I thought I was going to have to set some of these aside, but the guy added them up, and (gasp) TEN DOLLARS. For all of them. As I left they were opening new boxes of books and shelving them, but I forced myself to turn away. The sale continues today and tomorrow on Eighth St right off of Gilman, across from the Pyramid Brewery.

So I ran to Berkeley Bowl West and treated myself to strange and appealing produce. Black radish, Persian cucumber, asparagus shoots, round carrots, seckel pear, kaffir lime, spineless chayote, kohlrabi, a massive honeycrisp apple, and some beautiful staples (watermelon, banana, eggplant, avocado, yellow zucchini, a big mild pepper). I also picked up a bag of the expensive everything-free granola and some pineapple yogurt, and I still got back many dollars in change. All the glory of procuring things I want and all the cheapness that soothes my mean tightwad heart.

the no-powers that be

Apparently it takes a series of power outages to drive me to blog. It’s almost quiet in my place right now—two battery-driven clocks still tick, the kids next door are singing, and the sleeping dog’s nails are tapping against the wall (he’s on his side, dream-twitching). I’m supposed to be working, but I’ve finished editing the work I had downloaded and the rest is sitting in gmail, inaccessible. The light is murky in here (I’m unwilling to open the blinds: it’s supposed to get up to 102 today), but I’ve been reading for an hour or so anyway.

currently reading:

Light Years by James Salter. It’s occasionally been a struggle to keep the pace that’s been working for me with this book. I’d like to bolt the rest of it: it’s a smooth read, not too long, with well-spaced chapters, exactly the sort of novel I usually finish in a few days instead of a few weeks. But this feels best slow, sipped a chapter a day. The book follows the adult lives of a couple, Nedra and Viri, along with their daughters and a handful of family acquaintances. Salter jumps ahead in time and between perspectives without any easy transitional help, and sometimes I am lost for a paragraph or two, confused about when we are or how the central character in that chapter relates to Nedra and Viri. But the sentences are lovely and strong, and Salter holds all the characters to account for their actions at the same time that he renders them all understandable and sympathetic, so he’s free to lose me all he wants. Twenty pages left: I’m struggling not to finish it today in the half-dark and quiet. (But why? I may have talked myself right around it.)

Washington Square by Henry James. I’m exactly one page into this book. mopie suggested I start here with James (though I’ve read The Turn of the Screw, I’m considering this the first real book I’ll be reading of his), and I am starting with James because I desperately want to read Toibin’s The Master. It seems like a good idea to have some James in my system before I read a book based on the author. I have a copy of The Ambassadors but have been told by a couple of people that it’s an unnecessarily hard place to start.

Although You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky. Halfway done, and half the time I want to call all my DFW-familiar friends and share delightful anecdotes from the book, and the other half of the time I almost can’t bear both how awful I feel about his death and ridiculous I feel to have such an emotional reaction to the loss of someone I only ever knew through paper.

–picking at the nonfiction pile when I have time (not often lately): The Compassionate Instinct (edited by Dacher Keltner) and Psychotherapy without the Self (by Mark Epstein). Both less compelling and more difficult than previous books by the authors/editors, but still interesting enough to work through over time.

upcoming:

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Bring on the hype, the #franzenfreude, the dueling reviews, pissy tweets, adoring blogs, pre-reading dismissive shrugs, and ARC lovefests: I am unashamed of my excitement for this book and will not be swayed. Of the two excerpts I’ve read from it, both in The New Yorker, I hated one (every fault he’s ever been accused of, even ones I disagreed with, was present) and loved one. If there are pre-release parties where we stand around at 11:58 pm with whatever the Franzen equivalent of wizard caps and fake forehead scars would be (salmon in the pants? ear-muff headphones with no music playing?), I am there. I’m not quite to the level of timing my other reading so that I won’t have anything else in progress, but I’m guessing Washington Square will have a few days of rest.

the writing:

On the one hand, I’ve set up a comprehensive support and accountability plan, with twice-a-month writing group and two other specific people to check in with about the work. I have works of various lengths in progress. There are multiple comfortable places to write, and perfect pens if I opt for paper.

On the other hand, the last day I had off (excluding a weekend during which I was entirely out of town and busy) was July 3rd. Between regular full-time work, summertime pet-sitting gigs, ongoing housepainting/cleaning jobs, and six 10-hrs/day weekend assisting jaunts, I haven’t had the sort of time I need to do a whole bunch of writing. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t been writing at all: I have, and I don’t regret any of the experiences (or money) that have come from all my busyness. But I had the standard summer dreams of finishing things, whole dozy afternoons of self-hatred and short-story writing, and the small satisfaction of checking in with success tales instead of explanations and flat-out flaking. The seasonal grind is about to end; there is no assisting on the calendar for the next few months. And look, as soon as there is a little bit of space: here I am, writing things down.

edited to add: Oh, the power of coincidence. I posted this, then went to check my blog stats. While I was writing this all in the half-dark, Weetabix (one of my check-in folks, and the one I’ve been flaking on for a few Wednesdays) wrote about the writing and checking in here. I think both of us mentioning it means that we are now accountable to the entire internet. Shit.

Katri Kling lives with an unfriendly, unnamed German Shepherd and her brother, Mats. They are the town weirdos—children throw snowballs at their windows and scream “witch” at Katri. There is something affably off about Mats (autistic?), but Katri is good with numbers and money (if not people) and supports both of them by working as an accountant in the shop they live above. On the far outskirts of town (and in the winter, piled down with Finnish snow, “far” means something), a successful old illustrator of children’s books, Anna, lives by herself in the house she was raised in. Katri knows what she wants from Anna and has a plan about how to get it; Anna doesn’t know that she wants anything out of anyone, including herself, until she is facing what she decidedly doesn’t want.

It’s a deceptively simple plot, and a small book, but I understand why the NYRB brought it back and why so many people rave about it. Jansson manages a deep distrust about everything from rabbits to royalties so that by the midway point of the book I was ready for ax murderers or, just as horrifying, a strategic loosing of a shred of minor information that Katri knows will unbalance Anna. This consumed me: while the book is written primarily in the omniscient third-person voice, every so often, without quotation marks or chapter breaks or anything, Katri is speaking in first-person.

I, Katri Kling, often lie awake at night, thinking. As night thoughts go, mine are no doubt unusually practical. Mostly I think about money, lots of money, getting it quickly and taking it wisely and honestly, so much money that I won’t need to think about money any more.

The slips into her voice are so smooth that I spent the whole book wondering if it really was a third-person I was hearing from, or if I was supposed to think that Katri herself was writing the book I was reading. I wanted a little bit more from the ending, but the further I get from my reading, the more I understand where she left it.

This was my second NYRB book (Stoner was the first), and again, what a lovely aesthetic experience. The cover has an eggshell glow and a slightly chalky feel, sharp edges, the NYRB lozenge on the spine, great fonts, and color design (both inside and outside the cover) that I can recognize, as a total idiot in such matters, is thoughtful and skilled. The Jansson was a library book, but I want to own books in this series, have them to pick up and feel. [It’s so nice when the internet hands you exactly what you are searching for: an appreciation of the design (with picture of a stack of them).]

My writing group does a group goal check-in every time we meet: for each person, two writing goals and one non-writing goal. Mo is the keeper of all the lists, and she scores us on our self-reported completions. Sometimes we argue about half points or the validity of overlapping goals, but mostly, Mo’s scores stand. The points are worth nothing except the opportunity to taunt each other.

We are meeting on Monday, and bad planning on my part means I’m already down a point (“write every day” oh ha ha funny). I’ve got one in the bag (“deal with shelf”), but the other, and my deciding mockery point, hangs on updating this goddamn blog five times. Things that are more interesting than blogging recently: falling down the fascinating well of a few glee-struck subsets of psychology (happiness and evolutionary in particular), resurrecting a decade-lapsed meditation habit, finishing every book mentioned in my last entry except the bio and David Copperfield, shopping for kohlrabi, and singing to the dog. More interesting than all of that right now, however, is getting that point.

Currently reading:
The Position by Meg Wolitzer. I went in blind on this one, having picked it up solely because I so enjoyed The Wife. Great first chapters, very tempting to plow through it.
The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Chock full of science! All the research and citations in the back make me feel less goofy reading a book on how to be happier. Yay for that, because I’m already happier and I’m only on chapter five.
Born to Be Good by Dacher Keltner. His engaging lecture series from UC Berkeley is to blame for this jaunt into the psychology of happiness field. I picked the lectures at random, and now look at my reading list. I just started this, but I already wish I could hear him reading it. He’s a terrifically engaging speaker, geeky and excited and full of personal anecdotes. The Lyubomirsky book is one of the texts for the class.
–Winnicott bio. He is so strange. I should read more biography: it’s a major gap in my reading habits, along with drama.
David Copperfield. Reading every day, but I’m stuck in a very long tension-free middle section. It’s been around 100 pages now of things going great and everyone delighted to see each other. I’m getting ready to push Davey in front of a cart myself.

coming soon:
Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet. In transit from the library, requested after reading her stellar Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. After this, Huneven’s Blame, and Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out, I will have exhausted my current library request list. It’s painful to let all the books I want to read wait for me (there are ~30 on my to-read list that I know the library has), but I really need to get rid of some things at home and the only way that happens is if I read them first.
Reality Hunger by David Shields is sitting on the top of my incoming book pile, all shiny and library new, but I’ve now read so many reviews of the thing that I don’t know if I’m going to be able to tackle it before it’s due.
–four more blog entries.

the best of intentions

2010 was going to be the year I only read a few books at a time. I’m going to change that to: the spring of 2010 will be when I’m only reading a few books at a time. Also, 2010 was going to be the year in which I blogged about books as I finished them, instead of having a monster stack at the end of December. January 23rd, ten books read, none of them blogged.

in progress:
Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser. The dangers of Twitter, where book recommendations fly in every few minutes, all from people with tastes I share. I’m about halfway through: the title story, about a laughing game a group of kids get going, is so good that the rest of the book could coast and I’d still think it is great.
When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud. I loved The Emperor’s Children, and so far (which is not far yet), I’m enjoying the characters in this novel. Still waiting for a story to show up, but it’s early on and the pacing is working for me.
Lowboy by John Wray. The library has had the novel, all black and seductive, propped up in a featured new-release spot a dozen times during my recent visits. I’m not sure why I was hesitant to pick it up—a review set me off? After a year with so many characters with diagnosed mental illnesses a reluctance to tackle a paranoid schizophrenic? Cranky left-coast attitude at yet another book set in NYC? None of those was enough to sustain my resistance when I walked over the hill to the library and my requested book, claimed to be in, was not yet in. The horror. Anyway: totally into it, can imagine myself finishing it tonight or tomorrow, understand the raves.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Kramer’s Should You Leave? had a huge spoiler in it, but Copperfield’s a classic, and I deserve what I get for not having read it yet. Still enjoying it, still amused by Dickens’s urge to make his characters cry every three pages (so, about once per day on my reading schedule).
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek. Finally, shit is starting to get weird. I’m going to have to check this movie out again after I’m finished—the book feels like it would end up as a horror movie, and I don’t recall being that horrified. I might have been distracted by Isabelle Huppert and her freckled shoulders.
Making Monsters by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters. Started after hearing Watters on the radio and reading the NYT piece excerpted from the new book. This one, older and co-wrote, was right there on the shelf at the library. Shiny. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but so far, in arguing against an extremist stance, the book itself is lacking any shades of gray whatsoever.
Winnicott: Life and Work by F. Robert Rodman. Only a day in, and despite my attempts to stick to one non-memoir non-fiction work at a time. It was looking at me beseechingly, I swear. My delighted interest in Winnicott continues, and this, the first biography I’ve grabbed, is already paying out. If I were a different sort of writer, I would grab this man’s life in a heartbeat for fiction. I’m hoping someone has, and it’s just a matter of time before I stumble on their book.

carefully avoiding for the moment:
–Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Boyd’s Any Human Heart are both in my house, waiting for me to finish Dangerous Laughter and Lowboy.
–I’m making myself finish the massive Winnicott bio before I allow the next wave of psychology curiosity to wash over me: the Kramer book has made me mad for Harry Stack Sullivan. Parataxic distortion—how great is that? Even saying it makes me giddy.
–Very close to the top of my library request queue: The Kept Man by Jami Attenberg because of this interview. The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson because of something I read on the internet and now don’t remember. Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr. because after reading the original Attenberg link, I followed another one. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter because I read, surprise! on the internet that it’s funny and the stack is tilting a wee serious at the moment.

At long last, the end: it was hard to write most of these, to figure out a way to gush without saying the same things over and over again. I gave up and used the heady adjectives (lovely lovely beautiful) often—they are accurate.

    lovely lyrical novels:

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
Oh how I loved the first half of this. And I very much liked the second half. It spun off at the end (particularly the last 20 pages or so), but I’m still going to decide I liked it a lot. The writing is consistently impressive and dense, but never in a way that was a chore to read. Content-wise, this is a tough sell: child sexual abuse, suicide, shame like a shroud over everything. A reviewer somewhere said it’s the most beautiful writing about child abuse ever, and I agree. Horrible subject, gorgeous sentences. I’m looking forward to Chee’s second novel (later this year?).

Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it’s the adult, moving forward, forgetting. If innocence is ignorance of the capacity for evil, then it’s what adults have, when they forget what it’s like to be a child. When they look at a child and think of innocence they are thinking of how they can’t remember what that feels like.

Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
It took me almost 150 pages to get hooked on this book (and multiple renewals from the library), but those last 100 pages absolutely flew—I finished it in one long sitting. Lark and Termite are siblings from the same mother: Lark at 17 takes care of Termite, a few years younger, who is thoroughly disabled but also gifted in some occasionally supernatural ways. The aunt, Nonie, who is raising them, also gets her own sections, as does Robert, Termite’s father, in Korea during the massacre at No Gun Ri. The sections with Nonie/Lark/Termite take place during a few days in 1959, with flashbacks to Korea ten years before. For a book that felt static to me for so long, there is a lot of plot (I didn’t realize how much until I sat down to write up my notes on it) and layered relationships that were complex but organic. Bonus points for an unbelievably beautiful ending with Termite’s shadowy perspective; a hot, weird—and unexpected—sex scene, and at least in hardback, a fantastic cover design.

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa
I’ve now tried and discarded a dozen sentences right here, so I’m going to try again in small pieces that won’t help anyone decide if they are interested in the book or not. The parts of this book I liked caused me to think about my life in a different way. The parts I didn’t like I could barely keep my eyes open for. This happened before with Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. Both books influenced me to make decisions that I’m not sure were the best ones, but they were the choices that felt right at the time. The books were like friends urging me to follow my instincts. I’m not sure if they are the sorts of friends I should be listening to. (Parts I liked: the relationship, the setting, the peripheral characters and their situations. The other parts: the politics and the history, both of which felt insufficiently tied to the primary story.) I can’t tell you if this is a good book or a great book or a bad book: it was so personally affecting that I have no perspective on it.

It was enough for me to see her to realize that, despite my knowing that any relationship with the bad girl was doomed to failure, the only thing I really wanted in life with the passion others bring to the pursuit of fortune, glory, success, power, was having her, with all her lies, entanglements, egotism, and disappearances.

You’re very nice but you have a terrible defect: lack of ambition. You’re satisfied with what you have, aren’t you? But it isn’t anything, good boy.

    read too much/high expectation ruination:

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
I want to like Winterson so much more than I do, and I keep trying, following the recommendation trail. I woke up excited one morning, fresh from a dream realization that I did really like her books, the ones about British lesbians . . . that are written by Sarah Waters.

Underworld by Don DeLillo
I’m coming around a bit in that I’m glad I read it, but when asked about The Falling Man a few days ago (which I haven’t read), I realized that it might have permanently put me off DeLillo.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
The first of a few that are really good books, but came with so much hype that it would have been a miracle if they survived the expectations I had for them. It’s a tiny book, full of neat, tight writing. I had a hard time keeping the characters distinct. Had I not been waiting for a Life-Changing Literary Experience the whole time, I think I would have loved this rather than liking it thoroughly.

I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending though the attic to the upstairs bedrooms. It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than an actual experience. What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
All of the above, minus the “tiny” part. Ian and others warned me that the book doesn’t answer all the questions it raises (or even resolve the basic conflicts—I don’t expect answers or clean conclusions). Again, I had a good time reading this, falling repeatedly into dozens-of-pages sprees when I meant to sit down and read for a few minutes at most. At 600+ pages, there is room for that sort of reverie. After the last page, however, I feel like it missed the fantastic mark for me by not giving back enough for the time and attention and thought that I gave it. I’m working with a bias against magical realism, too, so I’m not sure there is a way that the novel could have been a complete success for me. Several scenes—and not just the horrific ones—will stick with me for years.

I was the chain that bit into my ankle, and I was the ruthless guard that never slept.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
There is no way to write with any detail about my problems with this novel without spoiling it, so I’ll stick to this: I didn’t believe it. My belief was suspended, frequently, to the point that I couldn’t even commit to the characters after around the mid-point. This surprised me: I love Moore, love everything I’ve ever read by her, own five of her books, and made reading goals for 2010 that will allow me to reread all five. I’m not sure what happened with this one, and I’m tempted to pretend that it’s not there, especially after my recent reread of Self-Help, which has held up beautifully.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
After having to read All the Pretty Horses for a class, I swore I would never read McCarthy again. We are a bad match, and I know much of what I dislike about his writing is what others admire. So I had no plans to read The Road, but then everyone and everyone raved about it, and there was a loaner copy floating around, and I caved. I admit: I wanted to know what was going to happen next pretty much the entire way through, and finished the book quickly. It was scary and tense. I did not hate it. However: the movie trailer had more characterization (have not and am not planning to see the movie), the plot is on a loop (road, hungry, find a place, hide, road), the huge gaps got in the way, and his stylistic choices—lack of punctuation, breaks between each paragraph, dialogue consisting of the same 20 words for nearly 300 pages—drove me up the wall. Also, I was comparing it to Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse (another post-apocalyptic American roadtrip novel), which I liked and used apostrophes, the entire time.

No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
This one hurts the most to write. I liked everything about the book, dug the voice and the tone and the characters and nerd-cultural touches and the history I knew nothing about. I even cried a little at the end. So what’s the problem? I read it too late: for over a year I heard about how perfect the novel is, and I had my own high hopes going in (based on how much I loved Diaz’s Drown). It was merely fabulous, only great. It’s 98% perfect, and I would recommend it to anyone (has anyone not read this yet?). It’s not Diaz’s fault this book isn’t in my next section—it’s mine for reading literally a dozen reviews before I read the book. Next one, I swear, I’ll read on release.

    top ten:

Love Invents Us by Amy Bloom
I think this was the only book I reread in 2009, and only because Lorelei Lee mentioned rereading this after every breakup in The Rumpus, and it was on the shelf, so I grabbed it. It yanked tears out of me several times, great barbed waves of them at the beginning and end. I love the aimless floundering of the main character (and the way Bloom explores failure), the inability to figure out how to make connections. Good stuff all around, and exactly what I needed at the time I read it—that’s something all the remaining novels share: in addition to being beautiful books, they were the books I needed at the time they showed up.

He read the first one all the way through and breathed in the love, that hot, hurting feeling under your ribs, love that made him sneak out of his barracks and slide past his cracker sergeant, risking court-martial for one of Arlene’s kisses through a chain-link fence, going to sleep with a rust-flecked diamond pressed into his face. Love that made life matter, even when you were just looking back at it.

And surely I cannot tell him that I’m no more good for me or for him than I ever was, that I will disappoint and confuse him, that I’ve been alone my whole life, and that it may really be too hard and too late, not even desirable, after such long, familiar cold, to be known, and heard, and seen.

The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
Lyrical, suspenseful, lovely. He worked on my assumptions repeatedly (in a way that no book since Oscar and Lucinda, that heartbreaking bastard, has), then kept a fairly quiet story so taut that I could scarcely stand to put it down at the cliffhangers. All with unceasingly beautiful language, and like he was giving me a little gift, a few jabs at Fresno. I’ve tried shoving this book on friends, but it’s hard to do without giving away any of what made it so surprising and fulfilling.

Instead, we hid our fears. Just as my mother hid a lock of her dead brother’s hair in the throat of her high-collared Sunday dress, in a pocket she had sewn there. You cannot go around in grief and panic every day; people will not let you, they will coax you with tea and tell you to move on, bake cakes and paint walls. You can hardly blame them; after all, we learned long ago that the world would fall apart and the cities would be left to the animals and the clambering vines if grief, like a mad king, were allowed to ascend the throne. So what you do is you let them coax you. You bake the cake and paint the wall and smile; you buy a new freezer as if you now had a plan for the future. And secretly—in the early morning—you sew a pocket in your skin. At the hollow of your throat. So that every time you smile, or nod your head at a teacher meeting, or bend over to pick up a fallen spoon, it presses and pricks and stings and you know you’ve not moved on. You never even planned to.

Really now, how can you not read it after that?

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
Another case of good timing—I really liked this little book, and in a year full of more serious and somber novels, it was the standout comic work. The narrator is stuck, while en route to his estranged gay daughter’s wedding, in O’Hare after a series of routine flight disasters. The history of his relationship with his daughter and her mother comes out over the course of a very funny letter to the airline describing the hell of being stuck overnight in an airport, summarizing his life and work as a translator, and roughly translating chunks of the Polish novel he has with him. Endearing, hilarious, and well-managed.
for the funny, I give you this:

Perhaps my beef is actually with Senor Fabio Eurotrash who rolled off a foam-strewn Ibiza dancefloor at six A.M. with sixteen Red-Bull-and-vodkas still fizzing in his gut and whose clumsy pre-takeoff attempt at self-fellatio in Seat 3A forced an interminable delay while his pretzeled ass was removed from the plane.

for the touching balance, this:

’I mean, how can one puny word like that encompass all the shit you did—I don’t mean you, I mean us, everyone, me—but also all the, all the things you didn’t do? It’s the inactions that keep you up at night. The actions, they’re done. They’re done. The inactions, they never go away. They just hang there. They rot. How is sorry supposed to stretch across all that?’

Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers
I’ve heard (good lord have I heard) all the problems that people have with Powers: he overwrites, his characters are stiff, his situations strange. And I can see that—sometimes he lapses into a strange poetic language that doesn’t quite fit, and there have been times when I disliked particular characters or was taken off guard by plot twists in the two novels (this one and The Echo Maker) I’ve read. None of those factors come close to denting my enjoyment at reading what are primarily books about big ideas. Generosity made me think about the nature of happiness and what it means that I prefer realist fiction—and why we even call it that when nothing is ever that explicable in reality. I’ve said and heard the thought “it’s too bad that [thing that actually happened] wouldn’t be believable in fiction,” and I can’t count the number of times in my own stories or stories I’m critiquing that an event that occurred has been highlighted as unbelievable. The amount of coincidence and happenstance present in most lives knocks them clean out of literary fiction. Powers also digs around in ideas about happiness, exploring why, if happiness is such a good thing, humans are not set up genetically to feel it as often as would seem optimal. In the background, smaller ideas spin: celebrity, writing advice in the age of blogs, the role of money in science, and how the constant stream of information affects the timelines of stories and their responses. I came out of this book thoroughly satisfied with the story and characters, questioning some assumptions I had about all the above topics, and eager to continue reading both Powers and outside works on the topics he wrote about.

This is what the Algerian tells me: live first, decide later. Love the genre that you most suspect. Good judgment will spare you nothing, least of all your life. Flow, words: there’s only one story, and it’s filled with doubles. The time for deciding how much you like it is after you’re dead.

Right around Elkhart, Russell concludes that truth laughs at narrative design. Realism—the whole threadbare patch job of consoling conventions—is like one of those painkillers that gets you addicted without helping anything. In reality, a million things happen all at once for no good reason, until some idiot texting on his cell plows into you on the expressway in northern Indiana. The End. Not exactly The Great Gatsby. Sales: zip. Critical response: total bewilderment. A failed avant-garde experiment. Not even a decent allegory. Even the cutout bin doesn’t want it.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
I would fail a quiz on Gravity’s Rainbow. There are elements that were completely beyond my comprehension, a hundred things I’m sure I missed. I expected to miss even more. In the midst of all my confusion, however, I found several stories and characters and countless images that are going to stay with me forever. I can’t recommend this book to anyone I can think of, and I could talk for an hour about the things that aggravated me, but I can recommend any single page to everyone—Pynchon blew me away with his sentences, page by page, and I found myself reading lines aloud constantly, excited and stunned with what he was doing with words.

While neo-Potemkins ranged the deep Arctic for her, skilled and technocratic wolves erecting settlements out of tundra, entire urban abstractions out of the ice and snow, bold Tchitcherine was back at the capital, snuggled away in her dacha, where they played at fisherman and fish, terrorist and State, explorer and edge of the wave-green world.

She may know a little, may think of herself, face and body, as ‘pretty’ . . . but he could never tell her all the rest, how many other living things, birds, nights smelling of grass and rain, sunlit moments of simple peace, also gather in what she is to him. Was. He is losing more than single Jessica: he’s losing a full range of life, of being for the first time at ease in the Creation. Going back to winter now, drawing back into his single envelope. The effort it takes to extend any further is more than he can make alone.

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet
The only book to make it into my dreams while I was reading it last year—appropriate, because “dreamlike” is how I would describe it. Not the standard hazy magical version, either, but like my personal dreams. I recognize the characters (though they aren’t acting exactly like themselves as I know them), the setting seems familiar (if tilted five degrees off of reality), and although I’m along for the ride, nothing is happening the way that it should and always has and I am powerless to stop or predict it. And when they are over, I sit up and think, what the hell was that? and can’t get it out of my head.
The novel is weird, enthralling, and so unpredictable that I couldn’t have guessed what was going to happen on the next page if my life depended on it. A thoroughly enjoyable reading experience, and one that is pushing me to Millet’s other books.

Suffering ignites the spark of contact with the sublime and offers proof of humanity, he was thinking. He wondered why it had been given to him to see history unfold, when it would have been so much more usual to die.
Powerful people have the luxury of designing the way they suffer, he thought, while the weak have the manner of their suffering forced upon them. But neither category has much daily business with happiness.
It is suffering, he thought, that is the engine of transfiguration, a hub around which the captive self turns.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
A creepy, tightly interwoven tale of identity and how we recognize each other. There are glowing reviews everywhere about this, and unlike with Oscar Wao, I had the good sense to ignore most of them until after I read the book. Trying to write down the basic plot for my notes nearly did me in, yet I didn’t have a moment of confusion while reading. I got to a point in the book where I recognized that I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I finished, both because it gets scary and the narrative pull was strong enough to throw me off my usual patterns. One of the very few books I could imagine gifting to my most hardcore litfic friends, the primarily nonfiction occasional reader pals I have, and my genre-junkie family members.

And you wipe the snow out of your hair and get back into your car and drive off toward an accumulation of the usual daily stuff—there is dinner to be made and laundry to be done and helping the kids with their homework and watching television on the couch with the dog resting her muzzle in your lap and a phone call you owe to your sister in Wisconsin and getting ready for bed, brushing and flossing and a few different pills that help to regulate your blood pressure and thyroid and a facial scrub that you apply and all the rituals that are—you are increasingly aware—units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison
All of the reviews in the world couldn’t get me to this beautiful little gem of a book until it swept the Tournament of Books last year. At the same time that it’s a one-sitting novel-ette margin-stretched to fill its pages, it’s as heavy and devastating as a novel three times its length. Although I haven’t read Beloved yet (I know, I know), I did get through a decent amount of Morrison in college: Sula, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, and then Love a few years ago on my own. None of it did much for me, and Love was the last straw. So thanks, ToB, for grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me until I listened. It’s short, it’s lovely, it has a perfect ending, and it will take you maybe two hours to read. The first chapter is rough going in terms of understanding plot events that haven’t occurred yet, but the voices alternate and it’s only a few pages long, so stick with it.

Is this dying mine alone? Is the clawing feathery thing the only life in me? You will tell me. You have the outside dark as well. And when I see you and fall into you I know I am live. Sudden it is not like before when I am always in fright. I am not afraid of anything now. The sun’s going leaves darkness behind and the dark is me. Is we. Is my home.

    and two perfect novels:

Stoner by John Williams
For my internet demographic, Stoner is the 2009 literary equivalent of surprise kitty, as close litblogs and book sites get to a firestorm of a book meme. Before 2009, I had maybe heard of it once or twice, probably skimming blogs (not following the linked reviews), but I couldn’t have told you a thing about it, from author to any idea of the story. And that’s how it should be. Very little happens in Stoner, and I’m glad I knew almost nothing about it other than readers and writers that I respect could hardly get the words out they were so moved by the book. I could tell you specific things I appreciated, but that would entail me telling you everything about the book, and then picking up the book and reading every single page out loud. A growing crowd of serious readers love this book; I’m joining them in proclaiming it perfect.

The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.

Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
My very helpful notes for Out Stealing Horses, in their entirety: “flawless.” There isn’t a word of this short book that I would wish changed. I’m not going to describe the plot or the characters (it’s difficult to think of a book that sounds as dull in description—maybe Stoner), but only say that after it was over, I felt like I had lost a life that I never lived, had lost a person who never existed. I’ve felt that a few times before—at the end of Infinite Jest, at the end of The Magic Mountain (oh god, Hans Castorp), Lolita, and Love in the Time of Cholera. When I think of those books, the first jolt of remembrance that comes to me isn’t of my reading experience or the quality of the prose or plot, but a stab of grief over losing people I knew and loved. I don’t know if Out Stealing Horses has what it takes to be a classic or if it will resonate with as many people, but Petterson gave me an entire world in one character. I can’t ask for more than that.